AUSTIN, TEXAS – With a packed crowd in front of him and fellow rappers such as Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Chuck D looking on from the side, Slug became unusually sentimental for a moment Friday night at the Rhymesayers 20th-anniversary showcase at the South by Southwest Music Conference.
“This is as close to church as I’m going to get,” said the Atmosphere frontman, who came to Austin’s annual trend-setting mega-fest years before Kanye West, Snoop Dogg and other hip-hop giants did.
This year, South by Southwest (SXSW) gave Minneapolis’ Little Rap Label That Could the reverential treatment.
SXSW organizers handed over an entire Friday night at one of Austin’s top nightclubs, Mohawk, for its showcase, also featuring Brother Ali, Prof and Dem Atlas.
The conference also hosted an industry panel Thursday at the Austin Convention Center titled “Rhymesayers: Independent Since Day One” — an honor that reiterates the company’s pioneering role in underground rap music.
Now housed above its Fifth Element record store in Uptown, the company started in 1995 more or less as a promotional street team and multi-member hip-hop crew from south Minneapolis. Now it’s the biggest record label in Minnesota. Named after Brent “Siddiq” Sayers — the label’s undemonstrative, no-nonsense president — Rhymesayers might actually have benefited from the fact that the Twin Cities did not have a thriving hip-hop scene at the time, Sayers said at Thursday’s panel.
“We essentially got to build our own scene,” he said.
The label’s co-founders, Slug (Sean Daley) and producer/DJ Ant (Anthony Davis), soon became its flagship act with their duo Atmosphere, a trio back then. They relied heavily on punk-rock-style touring to overcome the music industry’s indifference to Midwest hip-hop.
“I did whatever it took to make [touring] work,” Slug said. “I would lose that job if I had to. I didn’t care, I could go find another Pizza Hut when I get home.”
The advent of the Internet helped make touring cheaper, if not any less grueling, said Jason “J-Bird” Cook — who moved from Chicago to work as Rhymesayers’ director of touring. The web allowed them to “find some kid on a message board who was down with letting us stay at his place so we could go play Tulsa,” Cook said during the panel.
“I believed in the live show, so I said let’s just keep it going,” said Cook, who now heads Soundset, Rhymesayers’ hugely popular annual Memorial Day weekend festival in Shakopee.
One of the more revealing moments in the panel came during a discussion of such major labels as Interscope and Warner Bros. Sayers said there were many meetings with them in the wake of Atmosphere’s first big album, 2002’s “GodLovesUgly,” but they all resulted in his team remaining independent.
“We kept looking for somebody that got [us], but nobody seemed to,” he said, pointing out that they were “selling tens of thousands of records by then, out of our little back office” in Uptown. Atmosphere’s releases of the mid-2000s went on to hit the top 10 in Billboard’s album chart and sell 150,000-plus copies.
Slug was more blunt in his recollection of those big-league discussions: “I felt like the guy from Interscope was trying to sign every white rapper just to keep his white rapper [Eminem] at the top.”
Eventually, a few nationally recognized hip-hop artists wound up signing to Rhymesayers after their major-label deals ended. One of them, was Evidence, of Los Angeles’ Dilated Peoples. “It’d take a major label years to do what [Rhymesayers] can do in three months,” he said Thursday.
Dilated Peoples had a rendezvous with their Minneapolis cohorts at Friday night’s showcase, a five-hour familial affair. Before the show, Ant greeted fans standing in line (a line remained most of the night). Rhymesayers’ next generation of hometown acts, Prof and Dem Atlas, kicked off the performances. Brother Ali and Atmosphere then reached back through their discographies and brought out Chuck D and Los Angeles’ indie-rap scenemaker Murs as guest performers.
After the show, Chuck D sent out a string of tweets praising Rhymesayers for its 20-year success story, built on “no gimmicks, no major label marshmallow hype,” he wrote.
Slug turned their anniversary hoopla into a call-to-arms to other independent music makers at SXSW 2015.
Slug said he had “outlasted by 10 years” most of the peers he started out with. “It’s not because I was better, it’s because I love this so much and gave it everything I have.”